Released during the pandemic, many of the tracks on “Wonderland” will be getting their live debut when Willis and his band perform at the Boston Art & Music Soul Festival — better known as BAMS Fest — on Saturday at Franklin Park. With its focus on creating year-round opportunities for artists of color in Boston, BAMS Fest is a natural fit for an artist/activist like Willis, the writers’ room manager at 826 Boston, an Egleston Square youth writing and tutoring center.
BAMS Fest founder and artistic director Catherine T. Morris says each artist on Saturday’s bill was selected for a reason.
Hip-hop artist D Smoke isn’t just a winner of Netflix’s “Rhythm and Flow,” but also a bilingual activist whose following bridges audiences. SWV weren’t just chosen for their catalog of ’90s R&B classics, but also as a Boston Black history nod to the R&B events that radio station WILD-AM used to sponsor at Franklin Park. Black Alley Band’s set will provide a rare opportunity for Boston audiences to hear live go-go, the indigenous Washington, DC, sound that has also been threatened by gentrification in recent years.
Morris is equally excited about what will be happening off of the two main stages. Looking to give a boost to Black-owned businesses impacted by COVID, the festivities will include a vendor village curated by Black Owned Bos. and a Soul Food Row of food trucks. Five Afro-diasporic choreographers will be leading dance lessons, and eight artists will be creating murals. “It’s super dope that we have more female representation, because graffiti and visual arts normally can be male dominated, but women in that world are very loud and proud,” says Morris.
BAMS Fest, founded in 2018, has sought to make a deep impact in a city known for having many talented artists of color but a lack of opportunities or venues for them. Morris says the organization has now worked with more than 500 artists of color and has helped connect Boston artists with 150 companies. Last year Morris was tapped to be the director of arts and culture for the Boston Foundation.
After returning last year to Boston after a decade in California, Willis, 35, says he’s impressed at seeing how the hard work of Boston arts has led to opportunities like Cliff Notez’s recent slot at Boston Calling, “but we can’t rest on our laurels. How are we creating sustainable opportunities?”
“I’d give Boston a B-,” says Morris, adding besides venue challenges, artists are impacted by the region’s housing crisis. “We have to start valuing the arts the way we do education and construction.”
Willis is about to launch a campaign called “Hip-Hop is Fine Art,” which seeks to have the now decades-old art form accorded the same kind of long-term investment and opportunities for artistic development as classical music or ballet.
He has turned his “Wonderland” into a documentary film about the meaning of home, and he has created a teachers edition of the album for educators who share Willis’s passion for using hip-hop as a tool for learning. “I believe hip-hop is one of the most transformative tools for equity and justice that we have in the world today,” he says, “because it allows people who have next to nothing the ability to express themselves authentically through the means of expression they choose.”
As a rapper whose rhymes are often devoted to reflections about a sense of place and belonging, he understands the importance of being part of a free, family event like BAMS Fest that can help inspire the next generation of Boston artists.
“It’s an opportunity for folks to come out and just enjoy themselves, and as much as we always fight against systems of fight and things that work against us, our biggest weapon in that is radical joy. I want people to experience what love and a sense of community and a sense of belonging really mean.”
At Playstead Field, Franklin Park. June 11, noon to 8 pm Free. www.bamsfest.org